NRL FINALS - Sea Eagles v Cowboys
Friday 14 September 2012 9:46 AM
While Manly's stocks have dropped ahead of tonight's NRL semi-final against North Queensland would be extremely rash to confidently suggest the defending premier is no chance at all.
It’s true the Sea Eagles go into the battle in less than convincing form and perhaps with their confidence dented after last week’s loss to Canterbury-Bankstown.
It’s true, too, that they’ll be seriously under-powered without centre Steve Matai’s menacing presence on the left edge. His one-game suspension will unquestionably be some relief for in-form ex-Vodafone Warrior Brent Tate on the Cowboys’ right side. And, if that’s not enough, co-captain Jamie Lyon must remain in serious doubt despite the brave talk about him being able to play tonight after hobbling off with what was clearly a serious calf injury last week.
All of which seems to have created an air of despondency among Manly fans. Judging by reports they have been far from enthusiastic about making the trip from the northern beaches to support their team at Allianz Stadium (9.45pm kick-off NZ time; live SKY Sport 2).
On the flip side, the Cowboys have been galloping along impressively. They did a job on interstate rival Brisbane last Saturday night, winning 33-16 and suggesting they could have done still more damage.
The Cowboys have now won five straight while Manly’s run of six wins has been bookended by twin losses to the Bulldogs – 12-20 and Brookvale Oval in July and 10-16 at ANZ Stadium last week.
Each team’s schedulein recent weeks might well be significant in terms of this contest tonight.
Take the Cowboys first. While their last loss was, as it happens, against Manly – 6-8 in Townsville – they have recovered by swamping the Vodafone Warriors 52-12 at home, beating St George Illawarra 32-22 away, followed by Newcastle 22-14 at home, Cronulla 36-22 away and the Broncos last week.
Manly’s recovery after the July loss to the Dogs started against the Vodafone Warriors 24-22 (home game in Perth) and was followed by the 8-6 win against the Cowboys, a 23-6 away victory over South Sydney, a 42-20 home win against Newcastle, a 16-6 home success against Brisbane and a 24-16 away win over Gold Coast.
By and large, Manly had to grind away for success and did so as effectively as ever until it hit a bump in the road last week. Or will it prove to be more of a season-ending hurdle than a bump?
Without Matai the Sea Eagles lose venom and not a little ability out wide. If Lyon is out as well, or even if he plays well short of optimum fitness, the impact is magnified but Manly still packs a punch across the park from Brett Stewart at fullback to the exceptionally capable Jorge Taufua on the left wing – he made 245 metres last week – and the wonderful halves combination of Kieran Foran and Daly Cherry-Evans. The starting front row is a good one and the back row combination packs aggression, work ethic and quality ball-playing ability in the shape of Anthony Watmough, Tony Williams and Glenn Stewart.
So, write them off at your peril. They’ll muscle up for the grind and the Cowboys will have to live with them for the duration to extract success; they certainly have the means to do so through a well-balanced set of workers in the forwards complemented by the explosive abilities of hooker James Segeyaro and the young Kiwi monster Jason Taumalolo.
Working off them Johnathan Thurston, Matt Bowen and friends have threats galore. There’s one major negative for North Queensland, though, with the loss of experienced hooker Aaron Payne, who is out with a knee injury.
Much has again been made of North Queensland’s record in matches played in Sydney but that ignores the fact they have a 7-5 away record this season.
Whichever way it goes, this has all the ingredients for another classic finals battle.
The teams for tonight’s match are:
SEA EAGLES: Brett Stewart, Jorge Taufua, Dean Whare, Jamie Lyon, Michael Oldfield, Kieran Foran, Daly Cherry-Evans, Jason King, Matt Ballin, Brent Kite, Anthony Watmough, Tony Williams, Glenn Stewart. Interchange (from): Jamie Buhrer, Joe Galuvao, Darcy Lussick, Vic Mauro, George Rose
COWBOYS: Matthew Bowen, Ashley Graham, Brent Tate, Kane Linnett, Antonio Winterstein, Johnathan Thurston, Michael Morgan, Matthew Scott, James Segeyaro, James Tamou, Gavin Cooper, Glenn Hall, Dallas Johnson. Interchange (from): Jason Taumalolo, Ashton Sims, Scott Bolton, Anthony Mitchell, Joel Riethmuller
Referees: Shayne Hayne and Ben Cummins